My Response to #MeToo

Don’t usually post twice in one day but wanted to get this out there:

I’m deeply grieved to see so many good friends posting #MeToo. One is a colleague on my work team. Others are dear friends, or those who I deeply respect as gifted, intelligent women. I suspect there are also men out there who have been abused at the hands of men. I’m deeply sorry for the ways my fellow males have acted and that the world is so unsafe for women, children and other men.

To my brothers:

1. Having “your way” with women is not the way to obtain your “man card.” It just shows how much you still have to learn about real manhood which is measured not by your sexual exploits but your self-control and service to others,
2. I never want to hear another man use the idea of “it was her fault.” or “she wanted it” again. “No” never means “yes” and all this tells me about you is how weak and immature and self-deceived you are. It says nothing to me about the woman.
3. Don’t tell me that you can’t control yourself. If that’s true, you need to get help fast! You risk losing your job, destroying your marriage, suspension from a university if you are a student, and criminal charges and a sex offender label.
4. Don’t think porn is a safe alternative. Objectifying and having sex with what you think are virtual women (or others) only contributes to distorting your views of real human beings and feeds the lust for more. And the women (or others) are real people–and often are experiencing exploitation. There are groups to help you escape porn addiction.

For churches and other institutions. When these things occur (and sadly they will) in our midst, we need to realize that the only protection that should be going on is of the victim. The only protection alleged sexual offenders should have is of due process rights under law as part of a criminal investigation.

Men, we need to take responsibility to watch out for each other in this regard, and call each other out at the first hint of disrespecting women. There are a number of ways from words and jokes, to visual materials, to looks and gestures, in which we disrespect women and create a threatening atmosphere or discomfort that fall short of crimes and these also need to be called out. It saddens me that so often it is the women who are doing the calling out. They shouldn’t have to because as fathers, brothers, colleagues, and friends, we are doing it first.

That’s all.

Review: Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit

cultivating the fruit of the spirit

Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit, Christopher J. H. Wright. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: A study elaborating what it means to grow in Christlikeness looking at each of the nine fruit of the Spirit.

“Heavenly Father, I pray that I may live this day in your presence and please you more and more.

Lord Jesus, I pray that this day I may take up my cross and follow you.

Holy Spirit, I pray that this day you will fill me with yourself and cause your fruit to ripen in my life:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”

This is a portion of a prayer prayed by the late John R. W. Stott each morning. Perhaps, as author, and Stott’s successor in leading the Langham Partnership, Christopher J. H. Wright notes, it is no surprise that many who met Stott felt he was the most Christlike person they’d ever met.

This is a book about growing to be more like Christ through cultivating in one’s life the nine fruit of the Spirit the apostle Paul lists in Galatians 5:22-23. Wright nicknames these the “9-A-Day” through which our character is formed to be like Christ. He begins this study by setting Paul’s list in its Galatian context. Paul argues for the gospel of being reckoned right with God by our faith alone apart from works. Then he addresses what may be a criticism–that in rejecting legalism, haven’t you opened the door to license? Rather, what comes through the Christ who indwells us by the Holy Spirit is freedom from slavery either to law or to licentious sin. This Spirit, as we root our lives to Him each day in prayer, study, and faithful obedience bears the fruit of Christ’s character in us over the course of our lives.

Wright goes on in the next nine chapters to consider each quality in Paul’s list. His approach is not to tell a lot of stories but to focus on the biblical material about each of these qualities, both how we see this quality in the character of God, and what this looks like in the life of a Christ-follower. Much like the teaching of John Stott, Christ gives is clear and memorable outlines to help us reflect on each of these qualities, and concludes with practical application to everyday life. For example, in the chapter on “kindness” his subheadings are “Kindness and the Character of God,” “Kindness as a Quality of Those Who Worship God,” “Kindness and the Example of Jesus,” and “Kindness as a Habit of Life.” He concludes this chapter with two questions that may help us in our practice of kindness:

  • What would I do for people if were the Christ?
  • What would I do for people if they were the Christ?

Wright concludes each chapter with a few reflection and application questions. An additional feature at the end of each chapter is a link to a video of Wright talking about the particular fruit of the Spirit. For a sample, here is a link in which Wright introduces the series.

This is a book I wish I had as a young Christian. I understood that I had become a Christian through the work of Christ. But I found little help in what it meant to be a Christian, to live a life marked increasingly by the character of the Christ I was following. This is such a helpful study that offers hope that God, through his Spirit will indeed work out his character in our lives as we root our lives in Christ, heeding his word, gathering with his people, yielding ourselves in prayer, and faithfully acting on what he says.

I also appreciated the combination of scripturally-based instruction, and thoughtful application throughout. This comment about patience is just one example:

“That kind of patience is sadly needed more than ever in Christian churches–and even (maybe especially) among Christian leaders. In the world of instant blogging and commenting (and comments on comments), patience seems to be a very neglected virtue. Some people simply can’t wait to put their word in, get their point across, speak their mind — however harmful and hurtful it may be. We have become very impatient — in attitudes, communication, and expectations” (p. 79).

This strikes me as a great book that one might use for personal reflection, for discussion with a younger believer, or in a group. In that context, using Wright’s videos to set up discussion of each chapter could work very well.

It also strikes me that this work, unassuming as it may seem, is vital in our day. I observe on one hand Christians bemoaning the flight of millenials from the church and at the same time grasping at power and influence in American culture. Wright’s quote of a Hindu professor points to why the Christlikeness of lives characterized by the fruit of the Spirit is so important:

“If you Christians lived like Jesus, India would be at your feet tomorrow.”

Dare we believe it could be so of our own country?

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Why We Remember

YoungstownOhio1910s

It is hard for me to believe that I have been writing these posts for over three years (going back to April or May of 2014)! It has been quite a journey, not only through my own memories of growing up in Youngstown, but also the memories of so many of you who have commented on Facebook or on the blog itself. You have reminded me of things I’ve forgotten and enlightened me on things I either did not know about or poorly understood. My wife often sees me smiling when I am reading comments from you and that is because so many of them have recalled good things and brought joy to my heart, especially as we have savored memories of good food and good times in our common home.

That brings me to the question that is the title of this post–why do we remember? I have encountered a few along the way who scoff at this, who contend it is best to leave the past in the past, and as for Youngstown–we have to deal with what is now, and the future, however we see that. I respect that, and agree that we can’t live in the past.

At the same time, I do think there is value in remembering our experience in growing up in Youngstown. Here are several reasons why I think we remember:

  1. We enjoy remembering. While we may have painful memories, in time, many, but not all, fade and what stands out in our minds are the good experiences we have had through our lives. As we grow older, I suspect most of us would agree that while it is nice to have a flush bank account, what you really want is a bank of memories of family, friends, good food, and great experiences that you can make daily withdrawals from without it ever being depleted.
  2. We learn from our memories. Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher wrote, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” I have found that I’ve learned through reflecting on memories, particularly about how growing up in Youngstown shaped me. Everything from a love of beauty to being able to detect when someone is giving me a load of bull came out of growing up in Youngstown. Growing up in Youngstown taught me both how to work hard, and how to savor the fruits of work.
  3. We dignify what it means, and meant to be “working class.” Remembering, and celebrating our shared culture, and writing it down leaves a record of the richness of life in a working class town. In some educated circles, it is not unheard of to look down on people who grew up where we grew up. I would suggest that the culture of other classes, and what some call “elite” is not superior to working class culture, just different. We enjoyed a rich cultural life of food, music, sports, and celebrations, and there was an emphasis on education, hard work, the value of money, and appreciation of beautiful things and places like Mill Creek Park.
  4. Remembering is also a way that we sift out and decide what we want to take from our past and carry into our future. While some of the things I’ve written about are about the good things that are no more, there is so much about what made Youngstown a great, good place that had nothing to do with jobs and economics. They were already present when Youngstown was getting on its feet and are important for the future of Youngstown, or any place we live — good civic leadership, an investment into cultural institutions like art museums and symphonies, the creation of good parks as well as good businesses, the value of family and neighborhoods where people look out for each other, good schools and universities, and maybe most of all, lots of good occasions to gather over good food and drink.

Finally, without remembering we would not have stories to bore our grandchildren! Happy remembering!

To explore more memories of Youngstown and what it means to grow up working class, all my posts can be found at “On Youngstown” on the menu.

Review: The Life of the Mind

The Life of the Mind

The Life of the Mind, James V. Schall. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2006.

Summary: A series of meditations “on the joys and travails of thinking” focused around the central idea that thinking is discovering “what is.”

It is likely the case that other creatures “think” but thinking is one of the things that particularly sets apart human beings. We may also recognize that it is possible to think well or poorly and that an education, even a liberal education, may not necessarily set us up to think well.

This is a book about thinking, about the use of our minds to think well. The chapters are a series of meditations on aspects of the life of the mind. Schall begins with a fundamental premise, that the life of the mind is about the discovery of what is. As a Platonist (and a Christian), he believes that there is a reality that is “not ourselves” and that it is possible to discover this what is, and that it is.

He begins, in the chapter “On the Joys and Travails of Thinking,” to introduce us to A. D. Sertillanges book The Intellectual Life and the “habits of mind” necessary to an intellectual life. This then leads to a broader discussion on “Books and the Intellectual Life” of the place of books in the discovery of what is. He reminds us that any truly great work is worth reading more than once. He concludes the chapter with this peroration:

“Tell me what you read and I will tell you what you are. In any intellectual life, books and the books we have around us do not just indicate where we started or where we have ended, but how we got there and why we did not go somewhere else or by some other path. They ground and provoke our inclination to know. Books and the intellectual life go together, provided we always remember that it is the books that are for the life of the mind and not the other way around” (p. 20).

In his chapter on the liberal arts, he observes that the liberal arts as opposed to the “useful” arts open us to the what is that we have not or cannot make. Then he moves to “wisdom” which is the fruit of liberal study and learning what is, that we might live well, employing our energies for what is best in ways that yield joy.

“On the Consolations of Illiteracy, Revisited” is a chapter of comfort for those who only later in life discover Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, and other great writers. Often, these works mean more than they possibly could when we were young and lacking in the experience of life. There is a marvelous little chapter on “The Metaphysics of Walking” which is yet another way of our encounters with what is, and that there is a long history of walking thinkers! Then he speaks of the joys of discovering “a most wonderful book.” Most bibliophiles have had this experience and will gladly share their most wonderful book.

In later chapters, he challenges the relativism of the modern academy and the idea that it is all about questions. He believes that good philosophy, and good teaching leads to answers, and not just questions.

He concludes these reflections with an observation that is worth chewing on: “In the end, it is indeed a ‘risk’ to be a human being. That risk consists largely in our choosing not to know what is because we do not want to know where such knowledge might lead us.” I’ve often found that in discussions of faith that the real issue is not an inability to believe, but an unwillingness to consider belief because of what that might mean in one’s life, where that might lead one. Thinking can be dangerous!

The book also includes three appendices including a list of twenty books to awaken the mind (!), a transcript of an interview in the National Review Online on Education and Knowledge, and the text of a talk he gave on “Reading for Clerics” that speaks compellingly to the importance of reading and thinking to maintain vitality for any who engage in ministry, lay or clergy.

While Schall is a Catholic priest, this is not a Christian or Catholic text per se. What it represents is a good example of a work written for a wider audience that draws on Plato and Aristotle, as well as on Christian thinkers. He does what I think scholars who are Christians in the public square ought to do: engage a subject in the language of their discipline while unashamedly speaking of the contribution of Christian thought to that discourse. That too, I would propose is one of the fruits of a long engagement with careful thinking, a seamless weaving together of faith and reason in helping all of us understand better what is.

Review: Bookstore

bookstore

BookstoreLynne Tillman. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1999.

Summary: The story of Jeanette Watson and Books & Co., once one of the premier independent bookstores in New York City, connecting readers with books and their writers until their closing in 1997.

Jeanette Watson is the grand-daughter of the founder of IBM, and the daughter of Thomas Watson, Jr. who built the company into a computer industry leader. A reader from childhood, this daughter of wealth spent her early adult years working in early childhood education, mental health care, and going through one marriage and divorce. She struggled with depression, then faced hip surgery for congenital hip dysplasia. Facing surgery and a long recovery, she reached a turning point:

“I had a dream. The dream came almost immediately after I was told I needed surgery. I dreamed I was in a bookstore, surrounded by books, hundreds of books, and the place had two floors, and it was cozy. It looked like what would become Books & Co.

* * * * *

“Throughout the ordeal, the operation and the long recovery, the dream sustained me. I was determined there would be a bookstore at the end of the tunnel. One day I invited my friend Steve Aronson out for lunch. He was the only person I knew who was actually in publishing. I told Steven I wanted a bookstore that would look very old-fashioned, be like a private home, and carry wonderful books. There would be events, parties and gallery openings” (p. 13).

This book tells the story of the bookstore that came out of that dream, its twenty year run, and how Watson found her own calling in life in the process. The book, though authored by Lynne Tillman, is Jeanette Watson’s narrative of the history of Books & Co. and her own love of bookselling, interspersed with memories from publishers, writers, representatives, other booksellers, customers and celebrities about there experiences at Books & Co. The contributors anecdotes give us a sense of how Books & Co. served as kind of a literary nexus during this time.

It begins with Watson and her father investing in the startup after finding an old brownstone down the street from the Whitney, who owned the property, on Madison Avenue. She links up with Burt Britton, a book trade veteran who she signs on as a partner. The partnership lasted a year and resulted in “The Wall” representing the best of past and present literary fiction. Burt knew no limits to spending or acquiring books and eventually, Watson ended the partnership to try to meet the bottom line.

Watson realized her dream. She created a two story bookstore that included a green sofa on the second floor, and a curated collection of books centered on literature, philosophy, art, and children’s literature. She became renown for the authors who appeared and did readings in her stores. The list of those who did readings which appears at the back of the book is a snapshot of the literary world in New York in the from the late 1970’s to the late 1990’s. She was an aspiring writer’s friend, and introduced writers, and works she liked to the literary world, and underscored the important role booksellers play in promoting great writing.

Perhaps her greatest joy was connecting people with books, everyone from Woody Allen and Michael Jackson to ordinary residents of the city. Watson comments:

“There’s a significance too–almost a drama–in introducing readers to books. Dramatic because books can and do change people’s lives. I’ve felt that importance as much as I’ve felt it about introducing new writers to readers. Burt used to say, ‘It’s just as easy to read a good book as a bad book.’ If people were given the right book, they could experience something wonderful. One woman told me that she wasn’t a reader until the bookstore opened, but because of my suggestions, she was reading Balzac. It’s what I’m most proud of doing over the years” (p.52).

The book chronicles not only the joys but the struggles of bookselling. Apart from a few boom years in the 1980’s, it was a constant struggle to break even and Watson put a lot of her own money into the store. We get a glimpse behind the scenes of working with publishers representatives and making decisions about book acquisitions, working with distributors and staff, paying bills and making returns.

We also see the beginnings of a transformation of the book trade. Readers interested in the serious works sold by a store like this seemed to be aging and their numbers declining. The advent of the big chains like Barnes and Noble and Borders (!) began to erode sales as people turned to booksellers who discounted. Amazon was just new, and not yet perceived as the force that would threaten them all. E-books were still in the future. But the internet was dawning and cable and video were supplanting reading.

The death knell of this great indie was rent. For many years the Whitney and Books & Co. enjoyed a symbiotic relationship, with people often visiting both. The Whitney was landlord, and as Madison Avenue rents were rising, it became necessary for the Whitney to raise rents on its properties to attend to their own bottom line. These rents became increasingly difficult to meet. There were negotiations, explorations of a merger with the Whitney, all coming to nought. After Christmas in 1996, Jeanette Watson announced the closing of the store on May 31, 1997. Some attempted to save the store, but it was not to happen. The last part of the book is painful in some ways, as the attempts to sustain the life of a dying patient.

Reading the book brought to mind the wonderful encounters I’ve had with great bookstores over the year, especially the ones where the booksellers knew their books and loved connecting their customers with books they would love. I wish I had visited this one. It also reminded me of the passing of so many of these, each like the death of a friend.

At the same time, the pronounced death of the indie bookstores seems premature. Their number is actually growing while Borders is no more and Barnes and Noble is struggling. People are still reading Jane Austin and Dostoevsky, and so much else.

This autobiography, of Watson and her bookstore gives a glimpse into what it takes to make a great bookstore. There is one wrinkle in the book that may be off-putting to some. Watson, like so many bibliophiles, has a curiosity for everything and writes with more fascination than some might find comfortable of inter-species sex and every form of human sexuality, as well as an author’s study of cannibalism. Clearly, this is written in the progressive (and transgressive?) literary milieu of New York City. At the same time, we see the power of books to introduce us to so much of the world beyond just our own experience and the wonderful gift bookstores like Books & Co can be to writers and readers.

Jeanette Watson’s new memoir, It’s My Partywas released October 10, 2017. A video interview with Watson on her book is available on YouTube.

Review: Forgiveness and Justice

forgiveness and justice

Forgiveness and Justice, Bryan Maier. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2017.:

Summary: Interacts with other models of forgiveness from a biblical perspective, proposing that healing through trust in the justice of God precedes forgiveness, which can only occur where there is sincere confession and repentance by the offender.

This book changed my thinking about forgiveness. Like many, I’d come to believe in the therapeutic value of “forgiveness” even when the offender has not confessed to wrong-doing and repented of it. I can think of situations where this counsel didn’t ring true. There had been great offense, and while individuals wanted to forgive, the refusal of the offender to acknowledge the wrong, and in some cases continued the wrongful behavior, leaving a deep sense of grievance that “forgiving” could not address.

This book helped me understand why. First of all, the author, basing his discussion in scripture, focuses on a more careful definition of forgiveness, which isn’t “letting go” or reframing the offense or having greater empathy. Fundamentally, he argues that forgiveness, as God forgives, is not about our feelings, but about the offender, and can only occur when the offender confesses to the wrong, and repents from it.

How then are we to deal with the deep feelings of anger, hurt, and grievance. Maier observes that we tend to make the decision that it is good to get rid of these, and he would say, “Not so fast.” If there has been real offense, and in many cases he deals with as a counselor, profound abuse, these may be warranted feelings that stem from a deep sense of wanting to be vindicated. We should not try to reframe these hurts. Maier argues that it is the God who is just who vindicates and that healing starts with trusting in the justice of God, that we need not seek vengeance, but trust God to deal with the offense. He argues that it is precisely this about which the imprecatory Psalms are concerned and encourages their use by counselees.

He also proposes that as we begin to trust in the God of justice we find healing, before we forgive, and that in fact this prepares us to forgive. For one thing, realizing that the offender faces God’s justice if they do not repent may in time move us to pray for that repentance. That in turn raises the important question of how will we respond if they do repent.

Part of this has to do with discerning genuine repentance, something we can never fully assess. He suggests several indicators: 1). No demands, even requests for forgiveness, 2) A willingness to assume responsibility, and 3) A willingness to pay off the debt over time, realizing that trust is not restored instantaneously.

All this also means that repentance does not necessitate an instantaneous response of forgiveness. While this may be desired, the person offended must truly be ready for this and the offender must not expect or demand this. Clients should not be pressured into premature forgiveness.

I appreciate the care Maier shows in handling of scripture as well as in recognizing the seriousness of offenses like abuse and sexual assault and the need for victims to legitimately protect themselves from further harm from offenders. Moreover, this book seems to me to give a better account of unresolved feelings of anger than the “let it go” school. It acknowledges the role of God in healing, and also the very real concern for justice that is sometimes minimized in forgiveness teaching. And it helpfully focuses on when and how real forgiveness of the other may take place in a way that reinforces healing for both parties rather than compounding the problems between them.

I would highly recommend this work for all pastoral and clinical counselors, and for anyone who is wrestling with having experienced deep wounds at the hands of another. You may have heard the Lord’s teaching of “forgive as I have forgiven you” and struggle to do this, particularly when the offender has made no attempt to acknowledge the wrong done. This book unpacks what biblical and not merely therapeutic forgiveness looks like and the ways of healing that prepare us to truly forgive.

____________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Walking Back From the Abyss of Violence

staircase-962784_1920The latest (for now) mass shooting in Las Vegas was the deadliest shooting so far with 58 dying as well as the shooter. Sadly, it seems that these horrors are becoming a regular occurrence, complete with victim accounts, an attempt to understand the shooter, thoughts, prayers, and candlelight vigils and renewed outcries that something must be done to limit guns in a nation where there is nearly a gun for every person already.

The reality is that this is nearly a daily occurrence. According to a Guardian story, in the 1735 days ending on October 1 when the Las Vegas shooting took place, there were 1,516 mass shootings (defined as an event where four or more people were shot, not including the shooter). This does not count the “routine” violence occurring in our major cities. For example nearly as many die every month in Chicago as died in Las Vegas. A Vox report on gun violence reports that 2900 people have died at the hands of police since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson (police are also at greater risk in states with more guns). The same report contends that guns allow people to kill themselves more easily and that where gun access is limited, suicide deaths drop. It may be that the only person your gun will ever kill is someone you love, or even yourself.

Before I go any further, I am not going to advocate any gun control measure, nor am I going to advocate gun rights. I think we are at a stalemate and there are plenty to argue one way or the other. I’m not going to join either chorus. Rather, I want to suggest that these almost daily reports of terrible shootings and the other forms of gun violence, along with our rancorous discourse, suggest we are becoming an increasingly violent society, and that if we don’t obliterate ourselves in a nuclear winter, we might be headed toward a violent, anarchic abyss.

Do we in truth want to live in one of the most violent societies in the world? What I want to propose is that we make a collective decision to walk away from the abyss of violence in our national life.

What I mean by this is that we begin the long and arduous journey to conceive a different kind of society from the one that alternately celebrates and grieves violence. Rather than looking for some kind of quick legislative fix or imposition of government power, I want to propose a movement that may take a generation, just as the campaigns to discourage smoking and warn of the dangers cigarettes pose in terms of cancer, heart disease and other illnesses. As I child, I saw ads saying cigarettes were good for you. Now any ad, and every container of cigarettes warns of the health risks. For years, I had to inhale other people’s smoke in public places. Now my right to a smoke-free environment is protected in many public places. It took fifty years to get to this point.

Perhaps this journey needs to begin with a realization that we are all complicit in this violent society. Liberal Hollywood, the gaming industry, and all of us who consume their products participate in a celebration of violence. We may complain about those who manufacture assault rifles and other lethal instruments, and those who own them but how often do we passively absorb scenes of cinematic violence or participate in various forms of virtual violence? While most of us never conceive of violence, do we create a glamour around violence that suggests to some who don’t share our restraints, that violence is an acceptable way to go–often to one’s end?

Might we begin by agreeing that entertaining ourselves by virtual violence against human beings may not be the noblest of activities? If nothing else, there are other ways to employ our time, and a country as rich as ours provides many other outlets, including those that get us off our theater seating and toughen our bodies and minds.

* * * * *

Human beings will do all sorts of strange things when they don’t feel safe, from hoard water, to build underground shelters, to stockpile weapons, and to pass regulations and laws.  Most of the time, doing these things doesn’t make us any safer, they just give us some sense that we are in control.

A number of studies have shown that our number of confidants–real friends– has dropped (from roughly three to two on average). Likewise, there seems to be a correlation between time spent on social media and higher levels of anxiety. Correlation can’t determine which causes which or if there is some third factor. The past election cycle accentuated the phenomenon of “echo chambers” with the insidious addition of targeted ads playing to the tendencies of a given audience or even individuals. And social and other media amplify our fears of violence with the 24/7 news cycle. The old saw in the news world is that “if it bleeds, it leads.”

So, in addition to turning from our celebration of and pre-occupation with violence, might we turn from the things that induce fear? The truth is that while we have seen horrendous examples of gun violence, overall, gun violence, at least up to 2015, is down. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned about the possibility of future events like Las Vegas. It means dedicating ourselves to fostering a society where Las Vegas is even less likely to occur. Maybe rather than trying to limit guns, how do we foster a society where fewer people feel the need for them?

A few beginning thoughts:

  • Find out ways to re-neighbor with our real neighbors and build real community rather than the brittle virtual communities we’ve come to rely on that reinforce our fears and separate us off from the diversity of real humanity. This might also help us spot neighbors whose activity patterns are out of the ordinary and, where appropriate, “see something and say something.”
  • One common thread in so much violence is men.  Young men, old men, and men of every color. It seems to me we have to start asking what is going on with men that makes this resort to violence a choice a number are making. My hunch is that fathering may have something to do with it, and the absence of models to help boys pass into responsible and self-controlled manhood. It seems that much of the energy we spend on fighting about guns might be spent in understanding the men who use them.
  • It wouldn’t hurt to create incentives and easy paths to turn in guns, registered or not. Guns are often left behind on the death of someone and we should do all we can to make sure they as well disposed of as our recycling. This does nothing to limit the rights of gun owners. “How to Get Rid of a Gun” illustrates the challenges of legally disposing of guns. Our local county sheriff’s website gives detailed instructions on securing a concealed carry permit, but no instructions on legally disposing of guns.

I don’t think there are any easy answers. I’d have to look at this more than I have, but I suspect we’ve always been a violent nation. I don’t think fighting about gun control is going to change that, except maybe for the worse. Like so many things, I doubt things will change until we are sick and tired of being sick and tired and we turn from our love of violence in film and sport and our habits of verbal violence in so much of our discourse. I doubt things will change until we start paying attention to why so much gun violence is committed by men. We can provide easier ways to legally and safely dispose of guns without impairing the rights of anyone to own one, and maybe if done extensively, this could reduce the number of weapons out there that could fall into the wrong hands.

The real question it seems is do we have the national will to begin the hard work of forsaking a culture of violence. Will we keep after it for twenty, thirty, fifty years? If we survive long enough, we might bequeath a less violent country to our great-grandchildren.

 

Review: Race and Place

 

Race and Place

Race and PlaceDavid P. Leong (foreword by Soong-Chan Rah). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: Looks at how geography and place serve to perpetuate racial divisions and injustice and how the church may begin to address itself to these geographic forces and structures.

In many discussions about the continuing legacy of racial divisions and injustices in our country we focus on structural problems in our justice system, our political life, and in our economic life that perpetuate divisions. What is often less obvious is that place and geography places an important role in these structural divisions and in the perpetuation of racial discord in our society.

David P. Leong writes this book to open our eyes to the ways that our geography, particularly our urban geography helps perpetuate structures of racial division. The book is divided into three parts. In the first, Leong lays out terms, including a discussion of place and colorblindness. What I find him arguing here as much as anything is that we are “place blind” and we do not see how place and race interact. He traces this in part to a docetic theology that spiritualizes life and doesn’t recognize physical places as an essential aspect of life–that our embodied existence is lived in a place.

Part two looks at how patterns of exclusion work in our geography and how this plays out in education, housing, and our transportation patterns. He talks about our freeway systems as facilitating a suburban exodus. I was surprised that he did not talk about how freeways changed our urban landscapes, isolated neighborhoods and reinforced racial separation in many cities. This was surprising to me because he writes about Detroit, including the wall at Eight Mile Road, yet does not talk about how freeways also changed the urban geography of the city. He also addresses what he calls “return flight” and the resulting phenomenon of gentrification which perpetuates geographic isolation as poorer (and often racially distinct) populations are often displaced when an urban area gentrifies.

Part three addresses the phenomenon of relocation often advocated by the Christian Community Development Association. The author is part of one such community in the Rainier Valley area of Seattle. He explores the postures and practices involved in avoiding a kind of imperialism by sinking roots into a community, by practicing radical hospitality, and engaging in neighborhood renewal through a ministry of presence.

I think the strengths of this book are its analysis of the ways place and geography perpetuate racial divisions and inequities, and in the author’s story of the hard work of nurturing a racially diverse church community in urban Seattle. At the same time it seems that its primary solution to these problems of place is relocation and incarnational ministry. Perhaps in the very long term such communities can transform an urban environment. Yet I wonder if this is only a very small part of addressing the structural problems that sustain racism, even in terms of urban geography. It seems that there are issues related to law enforcement and the justice system, banking and financial services, business and commerce, the location of employment opportunities, fostering quality educational opportunities and more that this book leaves unaddressed, apart from acknowledging them.

Perhaps this calls for a much longer book, but even more an aware presence in these communities. It seems that this is what the author wants as he writes:

“As you witness these oppressive systems at work in your own neighborhood and reflect on these personal tendencies in your own life, I hope you’ll never look at another freeway, public school, or suburban home the same way again. Beyond those new ways of seeing, I also pray that you’ll be disturbed with our complicity in these problematic walls of hostility, to the point of further study, research, and lament.”

Leong’s book does this and something more. It shares the story of a community that has started looking at these things, not clinically from the outside, but as a hospitable and learning community from the inside. Over time, that may be far more significant than one more grandiose solution imposed from the outside.

 

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Ten Fall Activities

Lake Cohasset

Lake Cohasset, Photo (c) Bob Trube

I just came back from a trip and found my yard littered with leaves. That is the sign for me that fall has officially arrived. Cool crisp days. Early sunsets. First frosts. Football Fridays. All this set me to thinking of my top ten fall activities as I was growing up in Youngstown. Your list might be different but I bet at least a few of these are on yours!

10. Raking leaves into big piles and jumping into them. Wasn’t this a clever way for our parents to get us to rake the leaves?

9. Burning leaves when this was still allowed. Nearly every late afternoon, you could scent the smell of burning leaves in the air. The pyromaniac in me loved doing this. Thankfully, I never set anything on fire I wasn’t supposed to!

8. Hayrides at some of the rural farms in the area. Always more fun if you were with a girl, but I remember great evenings singing folk songs, eating fried donuts, drinking cider around a campfire.

7. Haunted houses. Weird lighting effects. Skeletons and ghouls that would leap out at you. Headless horsemen. Great for raising money for local causes.

6. Touch football after school. Seems like most of my buddies growing up weren’t good enough to play on a team but that didn’t keep us from playing epic contests at Borts field, pretending we were Frank Ryan, Jim Brown, or Gary Collins (those were the years I was a Browns fan). No helmets, no pads but can’t remember any of us getting hurt. We did manage to get muddy.

5. Pressing the most colorful leaves we could find into books between sheets of wax paper. Forgetting you did this until you cleaned out your parents’ house years later.

4. Listening to or watching the World Series. Most of the time it seems we were either rooting for the Yankees or against them. Sadly, no Indians teams to root for back then. So glad it is different now. This could be the year!

3. Football rivalries and homecomings. Our big rivalry was the Chaney-Austintown Fitch game. Every school had one.

2. Making our Halloween costumes. It was cheaper and somehow more fun to go as a pirate, bum, princess, or tramp then any of the cheesy costumes they sold at the store. And some people rewarded creativity with candy!

1. Probably for everyone, the big activity was walking, riding, or driving through Mill Creek Park savoring the smell of the leaves and the myriad of colors. I most loved how some of the trees seemed to glow with a light of their own on dark and rainy days.

While summer was probably my favorite season as a kid (no school), I think the fall season is probably my favorite now. I still love working in the yard on those cool, crisp days and the colors and smells of autumn leaves. While I’ve outgrown some of my favorite activities from those growing up years, I still enjoy the memory of them. How about you?

 

 

 

Review: Weapons of Math Destruction

weapons of math destruction

Weapons of Math DestructionCathy O’Neil. New York: Broadway Books, 2017.

Summary: An insider account of the algorithms that affect our lives, from going to college, to the ads we see online, to our chances of getting a job, being arrested, getting credit and insurance.

Big Data is indeed BIG. Mathematical algorithms shape who will see this post on their Facebook newsfeed. If you go to Amazon or another online bookseller, algorithms will suggest other books like this one you might be interested in. Have you seen all those ads about credit scores? They are more important than you might imagine. Algorithms used by employers and insurance companies determine your employability and insurability in part through these scores. Far more than another credit card (bad idea, by the way) or a mortgage are on the line. These algorithms seem objective, but how they are formulated, and the assumptions made in doing so mean the difference between useful tools that benefit people, and “black boxes” that thwart the flourishing of others, often unknown to them.

Cathy O’Neil should know. A tenure track math professor, she made the jump to Wall Street and became a “quant” who helped develop mathematical algorithms and witnessed, in the crash of 2008, the harm some of these caused. And she began to notice how algorithms often painfully impacted the lives of many others.  She describes how a teacher was fired because of the weighting of performance scores of a single class, despite other evaluations finding her an excellent teacher (afterwards it was found that there were a high number of erasures on tests for students who would have been in her class the previous year, suggesting these had been altered to improve scores).

As she looked at the algorithms responsible for such injustices, she came to dub them “Weapons of Math Destruction” or WMDs and she identified three characteristics of these WMDs:

  1. Opacity: those whose lives are affected by them have no idea of the factors and weighting of those factors that contributed to their “score”.
  2. Scale: how widely an algorithm is applied across industries and sectors of life can affect how much of one’s life is touched by a single formula. For example, the FICO scores mentioned above affect not only credit, but the ability to get a job, the cost of auto insurance, and your ability to rent an apartment.
  3. Damage: WMDs can reinforce other factors perpetuating a cycle of poverty, or incarceration.

She also shows that what makes these algorithms destructive is the use of proxy measurements. For example an employer may not know directly how savvy someone is as a marketer, and so they use a “proxy” measurement of how many Twitter followers that person has. Or age is used as a proxy for how safe a driver one is. For a group, the proxy may work well, and be utterly inaccurate for an individual that falls within that proxy group.

Then in successive chapters, she chronicles some of the ways WMDs operate in different parts of life. She discusses the U.S. News & World Report college rankings, and the use of algorithms in admissions processes. Social media uses algorithms to target advertising, which means some will see ads for for-profit schools and payday lenders, and others for upscale furnishing or Viagra, based on clicks, likes, searches, and comments. Policing strategies, including locations for intensified “stop and frisk” policing are shaped by another set of algorithms. Algorithms to filter resumes may use scoring algorithms that discriminate by address and psych exam algorithms may render others unemployable in a certain industry. Scheduling algorithms may promote efficiency at the expense of the ability of workers to sleep on a regular schedule, or arrange childcare, or work enough hours to qualify for health insurance. Algorithms sometimes shut people out from credit or low cost insurance when in fact they are good risks. She concludes by showing how algorithms determine ads and news we see (and don’t see). In an afterword she explores the flaws in algorithms revealed on the election of Donald Trump (algorithms, for example predicted Clinton would easily win Michigan and Wisconsin, where consequently she did not campaign, and lost by small margins).

In her conclusion, she makes the case not only for a code of ethics for mathematicians but also argues that regulation and audits of these algorithms are necessary. The value assumptions, as well as the mathematical methods of many algorithms are flawed, and yet opacity means those whose lives are most affected don’t even know what hit them.

She helps us see both the sinister and useful side of these algorithms. They may reveal where a pro-active intervention may save a family from descending into family violence, or provide extra assistance to a child in danger of falling behind in a key subject. Or they may be used to invade personal rights, or even to perpetuate socio-economic divides in a society. The reality is that the problem is not the math but the old GIGO problem (garbage in, garbage out). The values and assumptions of the humans who devise the formulas and weightings of values and the use of proxies determine what may be destructive outcomes for some people. Yet it can be hidden behind an app, a program, an algorithm.

The massive explosion in storage capacities, processing speeds, and the way our interests, health status, travel patterns, spending patterns, fitness, diet and sleep habits, our political inclinations and more may be tracked via our online and smartphone usage makes O’Neil’s warning an urgent one. We create mountains of data that may be increasingly mined by government and private interests. Perhaps as important as asking whether this will be governed in ways that contribute to our flourishing, is whether we will be alert enough to care.

____________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.